Vietnam Vet gives back after experiencing TBI
September 12, 2013
- "I woke up and I didn't know anything. I lost my memory of the past. The first 19 years of my life are gone." - Dr. James P. Meade Jr.
- Blanchfield Army Community Hospital
- Fort Campbell
- 101st Airborne Division
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He's an author, psychologist, Vietnam Veteran. He's a husband, teacher and motivational speaker.
He's also a severe traumatic brain injury survivor.
Meet Dr. James P. Meade Jr., who was shot down over the jungles of Vietnam, May 8, 1967. With just a few months in-country, it would also be the third time the 20-year-old Army helicopter pilot and warrant officer was shot down. However, this time was different.
"When we came down, the rotor blade of the helicopter dislocated and when we hit the ground … it came through the cockpit and struck me right in the head," Meade explained in a phone interview from Portland, Ore., Tuesday. "Nobody else was wounded."
The 1st Aviation Brigade Soldier's body was a wreck, and he remained in a coma as he was evacuated out of Vietnam and back to the U.S. The doctor delivered a dismal prognosis.
"They told my parents, my Family and my wife that I would not make it," he said. "My head was pretty well beat up and ... they just didn't think I'd make it."
Meade awoke several weeks later, only to respond with base, animal-like instincts. He would not only have to relearn to read and write, but master all other basic human functions as well.
"I woke up and I didn't know anything," Meade said. "I lost my memory of the past. The first 19 years of my life are gone."
Undeterred by the challenges ahead, Meade took on the recovery and rehabilitation process head-on. While it took several years to get to a functional place, Meade now says "it's been a wonderful life." While he still struggles with dexterity issues that prevent him from operating a computer and other lasting effects from the accident, he's achieved more than many nondisabled Americans. He even earned his Ph.D. in psychology in 1984.
"The VA sent me back to college," he said. "I finished my bachelor's degree, and then I was invited to go to California and work on my doctorate."
Meade made it his mission to help people with disabilities, particularly those with brain injuries.
It's not only to celebrate his recovery, but to honor his brother, Lt. David E. Meade, who died in 1970 while serving in the Vietnam War. Both through his private practice, as well as motivational speaking and other ventures, Meade tries to encourage those with disabilities to achieve their dreams.
"I've tried to be an example to other people with limitations," Meade said. "I have epilepsy because my brain [injury], and OK, I do. I can't do much about it. It's not the end of the world. There are other things. I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I've got a wife and Family that love me and take care of me and make sure that I'm always OK."
While Meade recognizes his story is an extreme case of traumatic brain injury, he empathizes with Soldiers at Fort Campbell struggling with these same problems. He offers words of wisdom from the other side of recovery.
"I know it's rough, and there are times when you think you're worthless," he said. "There are times you want to give up. The easiest way to fail at anything is not to try."
"You might find the way to accomplish your goals. It might not be the way you thought, but you can."
The James P. Meade Jr. Foundation now serves as a way for the Vietnam Vet to help the more than 1.7 million Americans suffering from a traumatic brain injury each year. Its mission is to help provide treatment and support for TBI patients. The foundation launched an Indiegogo campaign called "Help Bring Them Back" this week to help raise funds for organizations aiding those with traumatic brain injuries. For more about the foundation or how to donate to this cause, visit www.facebook.com/JamesMeadeFoundation.
To hear more of Meade's story in his own words, purchase his book, "Making Your Own Reality: A Survival Story," available online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
TBI treatment at Fort Campbell.
Many advances in the world of treatment and knowledge of traumatic brain injuries have been made since the Vietnam era. Currently, Blanchfield Army Community Hospital serves as a leading treatment center Army-wide for TBI.
"During that era in time, the notion of treatment for mild concussions didn't even really exist," explained Fort Campbell's Warrior Resiliency and Recovery Center Director Dr. Bret Logan. "The ones with mild concussions and maybe some of the kinds of things we see really got no treatment during that period of time."
The Warrior Resiliency and Recovery Center at Fort Campbell now works to help Soldiers with the residual effects of mild and moderate TBI -- such as headaches, balance issues, sleep troubles and other problems. This work will receive a boost when the Intrepid Spirit III opens next year on post. Intrepid Spirit III will be a satellite location of the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, opened in 2010 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
"We already operate pretty much on the model that we'll be operating on when we move into the Intrepid Spirit III," Logan said. "None of that will really change. What will be nicer, however, is there will be additional staff and there will be a lot more working space to allow us to help more people at a time. … Right now we can really only get two to three in our vestibular gym at a time. This will allow us to get six to 15 in the gym at a time, which will hopefully shorten people's treatment programs because they'll be able to get more intensity, more regularity than they have in the past."
The vestibular gym is important for those recovering from TBI because they often have middle ear injuries. The middle ear is essential to balance and eye movement.
"What Soldiers frequently tell you is that they get dizzy really easy. I can't move my head quickly. When I run or move or shift, the whole world begins to spin on me and that results from the middle ear not talking to the eyes very effectively," Logan said. "Because when you're in motion, your eyes are actually controlled by your ears.
"In the vestibular gym, what we're doing is we're taking all those problems with balance and movement, and coordination of eye movements, we retrain that back into a functional level."
At Intrepid Spirit III, a larger space will be available for yoga and meditation, as well as what is referred to as a centering garden.
"It's designed to have an aesthetic value which brings the person into kind of a calming state, which allows them to go forward in a little bit more constructive way," Logan said. "In this program, we have … people come in, unable to think very well or remember things very well, and they're all emotionally excited and very emotionally irritable. So the first thing we have to do is bring that irritability down."
The 25,000-square-foot center with multiple resources will be available for use by not only Soldiers, but also any TRICARE beneficiary.
"This really isn't just TBI or PTSD that we know about," Logan said. "This is about neuromodulation, which we already have a small cohort kids with severe ADHD that are in the center. Anything that happens in your brain, we can help modulate through these tools and techniques. So we certainly expect all the brain injuries that happen in football games and soccer games and riding bicycles to be there."
With the new innovations to come, Logan also hopes that the civilian medical community will benefit from continual advances made at Fort Campbell.
"What we hope to do is design good protocols that we can then push out to the civilian community, because right now if you go into the ER with a mild brain injury, you basically get nothing," Logan added.
Meade made the best out of a difficult situation, but the helicopter accident changed him forever. Logan said many Soldiers suffering from a TBI today are hesitant to accept they may never be the same.
"… Their definition of recovery is [often] who I was before," Logan said. "Our definition of recovery is good enough to do whatever it is you need to do in your life or want to do at this point. The truth is none of us are the same as we were yesterday … what I can do is take you from where you are now to where you want to be."
Through either primary care or the more intensive program at the WRRC, Logan said 97 to 98 percent of concussion patients return to active duty.
"I think [the center's] going to shorten treatment; it will get more people involved, and people will feel even better about the quality of work that's being done," Logan said.